War, as we all know, gives a thrust to technology... but we might prefer not to know how much.
"I can assure you he's thoroughly dead," says the Field Marshal, looming on my left. "Just a dead Jap. Nothing uncanny about him, except the damned fact that he's here."
The tone is brusque and testy. I'd actually been on the point of bringing myself to touch the corpse on the slab, and I did not need the dry voice of Baron Ironside to make quite so plain his impatience with my nerves. I shoot a resentful glance at the formidable old soldier. Though he has kept within the bounds of formal courtesy, Edmund "Tiny" Ironside (a bristling six-feet-four) seems with his every word and gesture to class me as a useless pipsqueak of a civilian.
My teeth slowly unclench. Pointless for me to get piqued. I might just as well harbour resentment at a ghost. The man's career is more or less over. He's been sidelined by a military establishment that disapproves of his style, and the fact that he's rumoured to be the original of Buchan's Richard Hannay can be but scant (though amusing) consolation. Anyhow, to be honest, I ought to admit that Tiny's insinuations are spot on: I am, indeed, scared.
Not that the cadaver is impressive in any way: Ironside is right about that too. The uninjured remains of a short Japanese man in the greenish uniform of a "gunso" with the two stars of a sergeant on the shoulder-straps, the body has not been touched. It lies in the attitude in which it was discovered: semi-prone, as if he'd stumbled and fallen sideways.
"And so, Professor, you see now why you've been called in - to explain how the bloody hell this chap came to by lying here in Kensington Barracks."
"My lord - "
"Forget about that. I know I've been kicked upstairs, but you can still call me General."
"General, the fellow's a Jap all right, but this isn't a problem to be referred to a Professor. At any rate, not to one from the School of Oriental and African Studies! Rather than talk to me, you need to get the PM's authorisation to gather a whole panel of weapons experts, and fast!"
"Oh." Tiny gazes straight at me for the first time. "Care to explain?"
"May we sit down?"
"Be my guest. They assured me you weren't the type to waste my time." He turns to lead the way - into some adjacent office, I suppose - and I interrupt hastily:
"Wait! Not so fast, if you please, General. The more I think of it, the more I reckon it's vital a watch be kept on this Jap at all times. We must sit here, or you must first fetch someone to keep guard."
"You think he'll get up and walk away?"
"General," and I sigh heavily, "we have an enemy soldier here, who can't be here yet is. You see what that means, I trust."
Ironside broods. "You're telling me that this isn't an issue of security in the normal sense of the word."
I sense two things: that I have underestimated him, and that he has let the initiative pass to me.
So as not to waste it, I must risk professional death. Well, isn't this the moment I've been saving my guts for? You can't be forever budgeting. The time comes when you have to spend...
"Indeed this is not espionage! How could it be?" (Ah, he's listening.) "No spying infiltration, no treachery even, could possibly explain how that Jap got here - because it's plainly impossible. Therefore..."
"For the love of Heaven don't start quoting that Sherlock Holmes thing," snaps Ironside. "A singularly useless piece of advice. How can you ever tell whether you've eliminated the impossible..."
I cut in, mildly, "That's wise of you, General. Very wise. It bears on what I'm about to say. To start with - we're winning the war, are we not?"
"Eh? Suppose so."
"Sure of that? You look uncomfortable, saying it."
"Damn you, I've no wish to sound complacent! Still - Mussolini won't last long now, and though Hitler and Tojo are far from beaten, the tide has turned, I reckon, so my answer is a definite yes."
"Thus far we're agreed," I nod. "Underneath all the war-weariness, we all now have the gut-feeling of being on the winning side."
"And...?" prompts the General. "You wish to cast doubt on these gut-feelings of ours?"
"I wish to point out, on the contrary, that the enemy must share them. February: the German Sixth Army surrenders at Stalingrad and the Japanese evacuate Guadalcanal. This month of May: the Afrika Korps surrender in Tunisia, and we just about lick the U-Boat menace. History's bell tolls loud, and the Axis aren't deaf..."
Ironside dubiously shakes his head. "Fanatics..."
"Even so, on some level, they must know, such defeats can't be cancelled out by mere fanaticism."
"Yes," he concedes; "the Germans aren't fools."
"Nor are the Japanese, however incapable they may be of changing tack. They're losing the game, and they must know it. Therefore..."
"All right, out with it, Professor."
"Therefore if something impossible happens, we should ask ourselves: are they changing the rules?"
"Don't ask me - tell me."
"A secret weapon."
Ironside smirks at that - but the smirk dies in a grimace.
I continue: "A weapon to put all others out of business, turn all tables, win all wars."
Ironside sits down on the edge of the slab, next to the Japanese sergeant. "I've heard the Germans are onto something science-fictional with their heavy-water plant in Norway. Atom-splitting or whatnot. But this - this - materialisation of a soldier across the world in the blink of an eye - it's too fantastic!"
I gesture, "Look, here he is!"
"All right, all right!" He adds, as though it helps him accept reality: "But at least he's dead."
"Yes, we can take comfort from that. A test that went wrong."
He mutters, "We must simply pray they never perfect the thing."
"Quite," I reply gently, discerning that he now believes. "Because if they do perfect it, we're done."
"Now wait a moment - you mean we can't pay them back in their own coin? British scientists ought to be the equal of Japanese, else we don't deserve to win."
"Sir, you must realize, that a matter-transmission weapon must be so far advanced of anything else, it can only have been discovered by unrepeatable fluke."
Ironside growls, "I suppose so."
"Well then," I continue, "our hope must be, that they won't be able to control it."
"Yuh!" - a sound of exasperation - followed by one more relapse into incredulity - "We're talking as though we believe this!"
"You brought me here, General."
"Yes," he wearily admits, and concludes, "Well, it seems I must alert the CIGS and the PM of this ludicrous event and our barmy conversation. Must do my duty even if I get laughed out of the Army."
"They won't laugh at you, Field Marshal," I say. "Unless the evidence disappears..."
I regard him thoughtfully. I say:
"Matter transmission - matter recall: two sides of the same operation."
Was it the click of a hunch? Or a real sound: a breath of air rushing to fill a sudden vacuum? Whatever the cause, I turn my head.
Clear space shows on the slab where the body had lain.
"...There you are," I babble, "gone without trace; looks like they're learning their tricks. I hope it costs them. Must take oceans of power..."
I fall silent. No case to bring, no evidence to convince a Government. And besides, these very thoughts are thousands of years out of date... as I now clearly remember.
A pity I couldn't have held onto the big picture the whole way through, but Coalescence is Coalescence; you can't cheat.
Tiny, or rather a copy of Tiny, is staring at me in outrage. "Your sleeves, man. Your jacket. What's that glow?"
Green glow on the jacket: for I'm the exempt one. It is my identity which will continue. Tiny on the other hand - or rather, the copy-Tiny I now see - won't last more than a few minutes longer.
This is the most unpleasant part of the operation. I suppose the copies have awareness, but do they have souls? Let's hope they share the souls of their originals during these few minutes... The poor thing has noticed the signs, the clouded wainscotting, the fuzzy bolster of cylindrical spiral mist contracting as it creeps across the floor: an unfortunate effect of the recall stage.
Copy-Tiny springs erect and demands, "What is this all about?" He steps towards me, fists clenched. "What nightmare is this?"
"Sorry, sir," I say. "During our entire conversation up to now, you were real - Similarising Coalescence is the technical term - but now we've left that 'you' behind."
Of course brains like his lack the resources to understand, yet I've noticed before that when the moment comes, appalled as they are, spellbound and subdued, they let me 'explain'; and perhaps it's a sort of kindness to accompany the event with words.
"S.C. means that the Reconstructor does its job to a hundred or so places of decimals, creating fusion of identity with the historical scene, so that I, the investigator, might as well be considered as a time-traveller. I even went so far as to forget myself and believe I really was Professor Crompton of SOAS in the year 1943. For the truth is, during those minutes of full operation I was indeed he, and I met the real Baron Ironside, and we stood in the real barracks room at Kensington. Only - not for long."
"Why not for long?" he grates, desperately playing along, pretending to belive. "Let me guess. You don't have the power."
He is refusing to look at the contracting cylindrical floor-mist; instead he's watching me, hoping I'll slip up and reveal that this is all some kind of trick - while he gathers his strength for a drastic move. A cool customer. I'm really impressed.
"Power is not limitless," I concede. "On our larger scale we have the same problem as those Japs during that ancient war which I was sent to investigate. I'm a historian, and I would have liked to stay longer. Since I was only allowed a few minutes, I picked a few minutes on 25th May 1943. And it went well - I was able to nab that essential bit of proof that the Jap body disappeared via matter-recall. Not that it affected the outcome of the war, of course. Just a dead-end Japanese feat, impossibly expensive. Still, this'll make my name at the Faculty..."
"Aaaaargh!" the copy-Tiny snarls, and makes as if to leap at me. But at that moment the mist gets to us and that is that.
No more of the scene at Kensington Barracks, not even the divergent unwinding copy: now the room has completely gone, and copy-Tiny with it, and I find myself back in the immense Hall of the Reconstructor, bathed in the blue glow of our Final Era.
My jacket has lost its green glow: the green of Intelligent Quantum Modelling which, I now remember, bridges one's identity over the awkward little interval between S.C. and full return. Mission accomplished, I reflexively rub my hands and stamp on the floor. The hard knowledge that I have been successfully re-harmonised with my departure point is a heady tonic...
On the negative side, I feel, as usual after a Reconstruction, slightly sick. Despite the warmth of triumph, my conscience aches as though I have done a cold, ruthless thing. But a moment's glance out of the Hall's transparent end-wall makes my spirits soar, as always.
Lappets of green parkland, draped over and between the contoured accretions and flamelike towers of a culture layer thirty-seven thousand years thick, overwhelm me with prideful relief. I am re-invested with privilege: I am a citizen of the Culmination!
To us - the last and best of all humanity's cultures; the summation of all previous societies - the task remains to fill all gaps in historical knowledge. And I, personally, have just made a contribution to that end! A humbling thought, and yet, one which makes me walk tall.
Caspar Storrinda greets me. He's my Faculty Head, I immediately remember. A cherubic know-all, beaming from behind his protective gear. He congratulates me, and we chat about what I have found.
For several more minutes we continue to swap views on the Reconstruction program, while more and more of my memories flood into me and I relax in the warm bath of truth. Life, for us lucky ones, is so good! If I had been given any choice of era in which to be born, I would certainly have chosen the here and now. Who would not prefer to be the viewer rather than the viewed; the Reconstructor rather than the Reconstructed; the Culmination rather than the imperfect times?
I then notice some holographic recorders pointed at me from reporters who are keeping their distance for the moment but who are likely to close in on me as soon as decontamination checks are over and the safety barrier comes down. The word is already getting around, that I have done well. Casp tells me, "You're quite the archetypal investigator-hero in some quarters, you know, Cromp. What will you choose for your next assignment, I wonder?"
"Don't much care. Any gap-plugging," I suggest, "is worth the effort."
"You prefer to keep your plans a secret?"
I shrug, "We could do with more light shed upon the rest of the story I've just looked into. The long, long legacy of that ancient, abortive Japanese invention of World War II. If you think about it, that so-called dead-end is actually the precursor of our modern Reconstructor...."
I halt my rambling voice.
I have seen a sight that freezes my pulse. A green glow where none should be; of the kind which has no place in the Culmination.
"Casp," my voice croaks, "your sleeves - Oh, a joke, I get it; yes, very good..."
Nevertheless it is with a ghastly readiness to believe that I look around at the hall's coving, the junction of wall and floor.
"WHAAAAAAAA..." my jaw drops at the dreadful certainly, that we're not what we thought we were, and all my truth is lies.
- A fuzziness, a misty bolster's advancing contraction...